Best Sellers (2021)
Director Lina Roessler’s debut feature Best Sellers is an uneven film that is mostly salvaged by the star power of Michael Caine and Aubrey Plaza. Part satire about the publishing industry and part character study, the film only just manages to balance its comedic and dramatic elements due to the onscreen chemistry of Caine and Plaza. Whilst both actors put in the hard yards to make the piece work, they are not helped by a mostly pedestrian script by Anthony Grieco and uninteresting direction.
Aubrey Plaza plays Lucy Stanbridge, who is running a legacy publishing house once led by her father, Joseph. The company is failing under Lucy’s stewardship as she hasn’t managed to produce a single bestseller or really even a mildly selling book. Her last title, a young adult fantasy, is both reviled in the traditional press and by new media in the form of YouTube book reviewers. Although buoyed by her indefatigable assistant Rachel (Ellen Wong), Lucy is working alone to keep a sinking ship afloat. Her struggle isn’t aided by an offer to sell the company to rival editor Jack Sinclair (Scott Speedman), who has a history of once working in the publishing house with her father and seemingly having a personal relationship with her.
Becoming increasingly desperate to keep the wolves from the door, Lucy starts looking through old contracts to see if there are any authors from the past she can call on for new work. As luck would have it, she finds an agreement between her father and the once highly celebrated author Harris Shaw (Michael Caine). Shaw not only owes the publishing house a novel but according to the contract, if no one edits his manuscript, he is bound to publicize it with a book tour.
Harris Shaw hasn’t been in the spotlight for forty years and, in the interim, has taken to drinking heavily, chain-smoking, and mourning the loss of his wife Elizabeth. To call him antisocial would be a vast understatement. Shaw managed to alienate everyone around him years ago (including being kicked out of Ireland). Desperation for money means that when Lucy and Rachel come knocking on his door demanding a new book and the resulting tour, he can’t refuse. What he can do, however, is by his very demeanor almost sabotage any chances of his novel selling. At the launch of his book, he not only insults the literati, but he physically assaults the prominent critic, Halpern Nolan (Cary Elwes), and ends up in jail. With all her company money and part of her trust fund invested in Shaw, Lucy has little choice but to bail out the cantankerous author and go on an increasingly low-rent book tour that is held mostly in bars.
At the first bar appearance, Shaw refuses to read from the book and instead declares “Bullshite!” when looking over his work, later urinating on the novel. The crowd seems to love it, and in the social media age, “Bullshite” becomes a hashtag, and Shaw’s exploits become Insta-famous. Shaw gains popularity for his antics, but none of that translates into actual sales, and Lucy is forced to trudge on with Shaw from one bar to the next, where hipsters ask her about t-shirt sales rather than buying the book.
The irony is that the book is actually very good. So, when Lucy comes up with the idea of having Shaw’s social media followers read from the novel, it boosts sales, which translates into success for Lucy and Shaw. Somewhere along the line, the two have reached a détente, which blossoms into a friendship.
The friendship between Shaw and Lucy is simultaneously the most crucial plot point and also the most unlikely. On paper, there is no reason for Lucy to forgive Shaw for the continual sabotage of their work, and for him, the “silver spoon” trust fund kid that he’s been saddled with is near to the antithesis of everything he appears to stand for. What Roessler is attempting is to create a father/daughter bond between the two. Although Caine and Plaza manage to sell the dynamic, it appears forced, chiefly to accommodate the emotionally saturated third act of the film.
Michael Caine, Harry Brown (2009), clearly relishes the opportunity to pull out his curmudgeon card for the role of Harris Shaw. As the caricature of the grumpy author dissipates and he is given more subtle material to work with, he shifts tone like the true professional he is. Aubrey Plaza, Ingrid Goes West (2017), is interesting as Lucy, who is partly millennial angst personified but also has a likeability to her that overcomes some of the underwritten aspects of her character. Plaza is capable of better comedy and certainly better satire, but Roessler gets a firm performance out of her that leans into her strengths.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the film is that tonally it doesn’t quite gel. It attempts to be a satire but isn’t really biting enough; it attempts to be a buddy comedy but isn’t funny enough. By the time it moves to the emotional and slightly melodramatic third act, some of the audience goodwill is spent. Roessler and Grieco ask the viewer to root for two characters that don’t really make sense together. By the time they do, it may be too late and the drama too overwrought to have the full intended impact.
Best Sellers is a film that does little to challenge and little to offend, and therein lies its central problem. There is just a sense of missed opportunities to really dive into something with much more wit and bite. A discussion about how great art is easily dismissed in contemporary society is one that the film almost has but mumbles along, turning into a fairly staid dramedy. Without Caine and Plaza, there would be no reason to care about the film at all.
2.5 / 5 – Alright
Reviewed by Nadine Whitney